Our emerging, “social distancing” police state is beyond disturbing

Back in the nineties, on an early episode of ABC’s short-lived series My So-Called Life, high school students were stunned when a handgun was brought into the school and it accidentally discharged in the hallway. By the end of the week, when they arrived at the school in the morning, there were metal detectors at the entrances and police were searching lockers and patting down some of the students in the halls. Everyone was walking around with dazed looks on their faces, but they quickly adapted to what had become “the new normal.”

I was reminded of that this week while watching the local news. The Mayor of a town near where I live was quoted as saying he was “fed up” with nonessential businesses that were still open, people not obeying the shelter in place orders and others failing to follow social distancing protocols. In response, he had somehow authorized the local police to begin breaking up gatherings of more than a few people and locking down noncompliant shops. Spectrum News interviewed a couple of police officers who sounded like they really didn’t want to do this, but planned to enforce the orders in the interest of the greater public good.

As it turns out, our community is far from the only place where this is going on. In Miami, the Mayor is similarly frustrated by the lack of compliance and the cops in his city have been instructed to get these people in line. (CBS Miami)

Sounding frustrated, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez says not enough of the businesses that are allowed to stay open are practicing social distancing. So if they won’t enforce it, the police will.

“Keep your distance. Six feet between all people is not a suggestion. It is now the rule of law,” Gimenez said.

Mayor Gimenez’s executive order limiting gathering in public places to 10 people or fewer while maintaining a safe distance has gone into effect. County police officers are now out enforcing those new rules.

Police all over Miami-Dade County have been visiting coffee shops, restaurants and other popular gathering spots, breaking up groups of people and threatening to shut down businesses that aren’t making hand sanitizer available to customers or sticking to only take-out orders. A spokesman for the Miami-Dade Police Department is quoted as saying, “Failure to comply with an executive order is a crime. It’s a misdemeanor and it could lead to an arrest.”

These aren’t unique cases. New York City police began enforcing social distancing rules on Monday. In the greater Boston area, police have been recorded stopping people walking along on the sidewalks and asking them, “why are you out in public?” And if the job turns out to be too much for the cops to handle, plans are already in place to mobilize the National Guard in many states and dispatch them to enforce these rules.

Is it just me, or are any of you starting to feel distinctly uneasy?

Look, I understand the rationale behind these orders. Elected officials believe that the virus could still wipe us out. (Professional estimates of precisely how dire the danger is vary considerably.) They’re making rules on the fly and doing whatever they can think of to show us that they’re working overtime to keep us safe.

But at the same time, the image of police rousting out citizens for the act of throwing a frisbee in the park or standing too close to each other at Dunkin’ Donuts is beyond disturbing. It simply feels wrong. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it feels unamerican. And if the National Guard begins deploying armed, uniformed troops on the orders of various governors to start doing the same thing, it’s going to look like something out of an early Stephen King novel.

I’ve yet to find a single incident of anyone actually being arrested for violating these orders. Why? Because for the most part, people are simply complying. When a law enforcement official shows up and tells them to break up their little coffee clutch or clear out of the dog park, people are just wandering off and following instructions. Much like the case with Angela Chase and her friends in My So-Called Life, we appear to be rapidly adjusting to our new normal.

At some point, whether it’s next month or next year, the broad danger from the novel coronavirus will have passed. But will the old normal in terms of social interactions and freedom of movement fully return? I’m sure that’s what we all expect and hopefully, that will be the case. But looking around on the streets right in my home town, it’s difficult to shake off the feeling that something has fundamentally changed. And not for the better.

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